Making the Decision to Major in Music

For many teens who study music the question eventually comes up: should I major in music in college? The answer to this question is not easy. Ultimately, it will require some personal soul-searching along with plenty of counsel from the student’s teachers and parents. It requires an analysis of whether the student is well suited-in musical skill, work ethic and determination-for studying music in college and, most importantly, what realistic life and career goals that course of study will serve. If big these questions are answered satisfactorily, majoring in music can not only be a very rewarding collegiate experience, but the opening to a world of both future satisfaction and financial stability.

Can I Do It?

A common mistake that high school music students make in considering whether to major in music in college is expecting that college will be like their high school music experience. This, unfortunately, is very much not the case. Most high schools that have music programs have almost exclusively performance classes (band, choir, orchestra), and often ones that are not particularly competitive. You may also find a “Music Appreciation” class, but they are designed for non-music students and so, not indicative of college music major classes. Of all music classes typically held in high schools across the country, only “Music Theory AP” classes approach the workload and expectations of a college music major class.

There are three general kinds of courses that music majors must take in college. The first are classroom courses, somewhat similar to humanities courses in other subject areas. The usual areas are: music history, music theory, aural skills and harmony/composition. There may also be more specialized classes for certain emphasizes such as music education (K-12), jazz, opera and pedagogy (private instructor). These classes are usually taught at desks with textbooks, tests and term papers. Sometimes they require demonstration of skill at the keyboard such as harmony. Perhaps the most notoriously difficult course is “Aural Skills” in which a student will be required to be able to recognize and notate intervals, scales, chords and 4-part harmony just from hearing it. The “classroom courses” of the music major are designed to make the student a well-informed and well-rounded musician and will require much more study and practice than music students ever had to do for high school music classes.

The second area of study is private lessons and solo performance. Students (with some exceptions) are required to major in one instrument (including the voice) for which they will receive weekly private lessons and be required to perform in front of a panel of teachers for their semester grade. They are typically also required to give a junior and/or senior year recital. For more performance-oriented music majors, this area is usually the most fun and rewarding. Students will get to work with high quality private teachers in honing their personal instrumental skills and exploring repertoire. Your private teacher often becomes a cherished advisor and friend for years to come.

The third area is performance ensembles. Unlike high school, however, college performance ensembles are almost always of a much higher quality and much more demanding of students. Students will often be required to read music well, to sing in foreign languages and to learn their part largely on their own, with less rehearsal in class. The selection of college performance ensembles are also much broader than high school often including several levels of choirs, bands and orchestras; small elite performance groups and ensembles that dedicate entire semesters to a single project. Many of the ensembles are by audition only and competition can be high. Still, for those who enjoy it, college ensembles can be some of the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime for the level of skill and artistry they can obtain.

Are you up to the task? Being a music major (contrary to uninformed, common belief) is certainly not all fun and games, but if it is your passion, you will love (almost) every minute of it. It requires an intellectual mind, great study and practice ethics, self-motivation and often thick skin to succeed. It usually requires more hours in the day than other majors, and music majors are increasingly taking five years to complete their Bachelors rather than the usual four. But music programs are well designed because they not only teach their graduates all of the musical skills they will need to succeed, but also the dedication and strength to make a career in an area that is not always easy or clear-cut. And for those who choose to not make a career out of music, music major graduates are widely noted for their intelligence, work ethic and leadership skills.